HOUSTON — The home field is supposed to be an advantage in sports. Players sleep in their own beds. They keep their normal routines. Umpires might be friendlier. Whatever quirks exist on the playing field are familiar. The fans cheer you, not your opponent.
The 2019 World Series, however, has flipped the concept of home-field advantage entirely on its head. The road team has won all six games so far, the latest on Tuesday with the Washington Nationals’ 7-2 win over the Houston Astros that forced a winner-takes-all Game 7 late Wednesday night.
It was a rarity that transcended baseball: According to ESPN Stats and Information, the road team had never won the first six games of a postseason series in the history of M.LB., the N.B.A. or the N.H.L. — until now. Home-field disadvantage, perhaps.
“It’s weird, really,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said after Tuesday’s game. “I mean, we can’t explain it. I know we were trying to win games at home and just couldn’t do it.”
It is rare to see something entirely new in baseball at all; there have been so many games and so many possibilities for randomness. More than 670 World Series games have been played in major league history since 1903. (The best-of-seven format began in 1905, with a few exceptions.) Why did this unusual phenomenon happen now, with these teams? Players and managers on both sides had little wisdom to offer.
“It’s crazy,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “The road team has just played better baseball in the first six games. I don’t know what to tell you about that.”
It might simply be a coincidence that the best team in each game of this World Series was the one sleeping in a hotel. The Nationals outplayed the Astros in the first two games in Houston last week. The Astros easily won all three games in Washington, by a combined score of 19-3, to take a three-games-to-two lead in the series. The Nationals bucked history — a road team had won Game 6 of a World Series only 36 percent of the time — and continued the unusual 2019 phenomenon behind the powerful right arm of Stephen Strasburg and the potent bat of Anthony Rendon to win on Tuesday.
The Astros will have to end the trend on Wednesday to win their second title in three years — otherwise the Nationals will be rejoicing over their first World Series in a largely empty Minute Maid Park after Game 7.
“We’re waiting until the last game to have it on our side,” said Astros Manager A.J. Hinch of home-field advantage. “We worked really hard to get home-field, and we’re happy to play at home. We have no problem playing at home. This place will be rocking. We’ve won a ton of games in this ballpark. This series has been very weird.”
It has. No team in baseball won more games at home during the regular season than the Astros, who went 60-21 there. No team in baseball won more games period, since the Astros’ 107 regular-season victories earned them home-field advantage throughout the entire postseason.
The Nationals won 93 regular-season games, entered the playoffs as the first National League wild card team and kicked off a spirited postseason run with a comeback win over the Milwaukee Brewers at home. They beat the Dodgers, the best team in the N.L., in Los Angeles in extra innings of Game 5 of their N.L. division series. They swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the N.L. Championship Series.
Even though the Nationals had to travel to Houston to start the World Series on Oct. 22, they were well rested compared to the Astros. The N.L.C.S. ended on Oct. 15 while the A.L.C.S. ended on Oct. 19 because the Yankees pushed the Astros to six games. Still, the Astros finished that series at home, so they did not have the burden of travel between series.
Another factor may be that both teams are laden with veterans, as the Nationals had the oldest regular-season roster in the major leagues this year by average age, and the Astros were third. Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who has played 15 major league seasons, said there was “not really” any difference between playing at home versus on the road. “If you play for a while and been in the league for a while, playing on the road doesn’t really bother you,” he said.
The effects of home-field advantage might be more tempered in baseball’s postseason compared to other sports. Entering this year, home teams have won 55 percent of the time in the World Series — about the same rate as during the regular season. The World Series title, though, has been won by the team with home field advantage only 49 percent of the time, according to M.L.B.
Playing at home may cause more intense pressure for some players. Games 3 through 5 this year, for example, were the first World Series games in Washington since 1933 and nearly 44,000 fans stuffed Nationals Park for each of them — perhaps driving home the burden of history for Washington players. The result was three Nationals’ losses.
“Maybe we were pressing a little bit and trying to blow the roof off this place,” Nationals closer Sean Doolittle said after Game 5.
There is a large caveat in addressing any potential home-field advantage in the World Series: It has been inconsistently determined throughout history. In the early years of the World Series, it was picked randomly or by coin flip. With the adoption of the current 2-3-2 format in 1924 with some exceptions, home-field advantage generally alternated between leagues each year until 2003.
After the 2002 All-Star Game ended in a tie, Bud Selig, the commissioner at the time, tried to add more significance to the midseason exhibition game by giving the winning league home-field advantage during the World Series. That practice ended with the 2017 season, and the team with the best regular-season record has earned the right to home-field advantage in the postseason since. That year, the Dodgers won it and they hosted Game 7 of the World Series in Los Angeles against — you guessed it — the Astros.
The Astros won that contest, 5-1. This time, the Astros host Game 7, but Houston second baseman Jose Altuve insisted there was no added pressure to playing Game 7 at home given the rare trend developing this World Series.
“Anything can happen,” he said.
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